By DR RITA PEMBERTON
The signs that the central government of TT was not supportive of the Tobago House of Assembly as the autonomous body as had been conceived by its main protagonists, became very evident during the first three years of its operation. This period was characterised by conflict and confusion as the central government’s motive to restrain the THA was met with unwavering resistance. Apart from the comments made and attitudes displayed during the debate in Parliament on the ANR Robinson motion in 1977, the physical arrangements – or the lack thereof – immediately told the tale that Act No 37 of 1980 was crafted to prevent, rather than permit, autonomy for Tobago.
After its inauguration at the Hall of Justice, in Trinidad in December 1980, the officers of THA proceeded to Tobago to discover the nebulous position in which the THA had been placed.
The first issue occurred regarding arrangements for the physical accommodation of the officers. Whether this was an oversight or a deliberate omission could be determined by subsequent developments. No office was provided for the chairman of the assembly and there was no identifiable system in place for the officers to be able to carry out their functions.
The law which established the THA meant the removal of Act No 22 of 1967 to re-enact and amend the law relating to the county councils of TT removed the aldermen and county councillors of Tobago. However, an examination of the provisions of the 1980 act is revealing. The terminology in the fourth schedule was adjusted to read, “County Council or THA” and the 5th schedule states that the term county council was also to be construed as referring to the THA.
In the minds of the framers of this law there was a clear intent to establish the THA to replace the Tobago County Council ,whose responsibilities were reallocated to the THA, which, contrary to the intention of the autonomy-seekers, was to be no different from the remaining county councils in the country.
It was therefore no accident that the Fairfield Complex, in which the officers of the Tobago County Council were housed, was the building in which individual office space was eventually created for the THA. However, it was difficult for them to carry out their responsibilities in the respective divisions to which they were allocated. Its location and allocated responsibilities were therefore symbolic of the role it was expected to play on the island.
The THA officers met at Fairfield until they were subsequently assigned spaces in their respective divisions. There was absolutely no recognition of the need to provide an office for the chairman of the THA, who, undaunted, established office in a ground floor room at his home on Robinson Street from which he functioned until 1996.
Despite the provision of Act 37 of 1980, which stated that in Article 27 (1) that: “The Assembly shall hold meetings at least once a month in the Hall of the Assembly,”,there was no allocated space that could be so utilised.
Negotiations were held with Chief Justice Hyatali, who gave permission for plenary sessions to be held in the now abandoned old courthouse. At the suggestion of Dr JD Elder, and reflective of the mood of resistance and defiance in the THA, the building was renamed Sandy Hall, after Sandy, the hero of the first revolt of enslaved Africans on the island in 1770, who defied captivity.
The next hurdle to be overcome was in the daily operations of the assembly. Central government insisted that the THA should only act when and in what areas it was instructed so to do. The THA challenged this interpretation and took the central government to court for a determination of the matter of its responsibility over matters allocated to it under the act. Citing Section 75.1 of the constitution which states that Cabinet “shall have the general direction and control of the government of TT,” the court ruled that the THA was a local government body which had no authority to act on its own.
The THA was determined to forge ahead and Mr Robinson created a mechanism to circumvent that problem and make the officials of the THA functional. The county council was based on a system of committees but there were no committees for agriculture and tourism which were of critical importance for Tobago.
The office of secretaries, who were selected according to expertise and each allocated responsibilities for areas allocated to the THA under the act, was created.
However, confusion constantly erupted because central government assigned responsibilities for the very functions which were to be directed by the THA in Tobago to officers in Trinidad. The most frequent clashes commonly involved matters pertaining to agriculture, health and tourism.
The 7th sitting of the THA was devoted to a debate on the decision of the central government to establish a mental unit at the Scarborough hospital at Fort King George.
This decision was made without consultation with the THA and without consideration of the island’s interests. The plan was vehemently opposed by the THA and sections of the population since the area was the location of one of the island's major tourist attractions and considered unsuitable for housing patients with mental challenges.
However, the Secretary for Health asserted the right to be responsible for areas in Tobago and accused the minister of usurping its responsibility by his insistence that the Ministry of Health was empowered to carry out the same functions that were allocated to the Secretary for Health.
This debacle frustrated the operations of the THA and in particular its effort to improve the island’s health sector. The THA took the matter to court, which ruled that the THA had first responsibility on matters pertaining to the fort, and not the central government.
During its early years, the THA had to deal with teething problems which were largely created by the hostile environment in which it was forced to operate.
This was but the introduction to the spate of conflicts with the central government that lined the long road to autonomy. While the conflicts soured the relationship between the two administrative bodies and the two islands, its effect was to pique the determination of supporters to remain resolute in the pursuit of their goal. The fight for autonomy for Tobago was therefore destined to continue unabated.
The severe administrative deficiencies which existed in the arrangement were strictures on the operations of the THA. Since the divisions in Tobago were seen as appendages to the ministries in Trinidad, the required quality of staff was not made available to the THA as only low-level clerks were appointed. A secretary was not appointed until January 1981 when an AOV was sent from the Ministry of Social development.
Staffing was a problem because the staff of the THA was neither fish nor fowl, belonging to neither the statutory bodies nor the Public Service, with no prospects for either appointment or promotion; hence some officers lost their seniority. This untenable situation remained in place until 1988 when the new constitutional amendments provided a new definition of service to the government.
After its establishment the THA was required to expend its energies to obtain the basic tools and facilities for its operation, clarify the areas of its authority, be recognised as the policy-making body for Tobago distinct and separate from the central government, formalise its relationship with central government and remove the restrictions and battle for the implementation of the autonomy it craved.